The Liceu Opera House, Barcelona
The March social programme took us to visit, among other places, one of Barcelona's top cultural attractions - the Liceu, the Barcelona opera house, which (after Paris) is Europe's second biggest.
Considering that it was early on Saturday morning (you can only visit the Liceu in the morning), we got a pretty good turnout for the trip. With Dutch, American, Swiss and Israeli students here at the moment, among others, as usual it was a pretty international outfit that strolled across the heart of old Barcelona - past the cathedral, over the main Plaza Sant Jaume (oh, for a coffee in the Mesón del Café!) and across to the Ramblas and the opera house.
The stroll gave us 10 minutes to practise our Spanish. Ruth Wehling, a sales representative from Chicago, in Barcelona to visit her son on a study abroad year in Barcelona - and to learn Spanish too! - was doing fine, despite only having been here three weeks. "Many people in the States don't realize how important Spanish is, but it's certainly going to become even more important in the next 20 years," says Ruth.
Ruth Wiezer and Orna Sapir, high school teachers from Israel on sabbatical, were finding the Spanish a bit harder, but were coping ok and, hey, they'd only been here for one week!
Barcelona's opera house, opened in 1847, and twice burnt down (1861 and 1994), is a building you might miss as you walk down the Ramblas. But despite its unimposing façade (and the post-1994 extension, which is a particularly hideous eyesore), inside it's a pretty impressive place, even virtually empty on a Saturday morning.
Built in a horseshoe shape that provides superb acoustics but some dreadful blindspots as far as visibility is concerned, with a 2,292 seat capacity, it is around the biggest you can possibly get for unamplified voices - even for opera singers, that is. ("Opera is singing as loud as you can, is it?" a rather perplexed Isabel Walton (7), who accompanied us on the trip, wanted to know.)
The Liceu : ornate decoration in the first circle
If you decided to get cheap seats for the Liceu* (they start at €5 and go up to €142 for the current season) you'll be up at the top, watching it on a TV monitor, as the stage is invisible. The Liceu is now all high-tech and if you really don't know your Don Giovanni, the press of a button brings up the subtitles (English, Spanish or Catalan) on the display on the back of the seat in front of you.
Alternatively, you could just gawk at your fellow socialites, which they say is what opera-going was (at least originally) all about. Our tour guide explained that until 1904 performances were given with all the lights on in the auditorium so that you could get a better view of who had come with who, wearing what... That is, until Richard Wagner put his foot down and insisted that if you came, you came to watch the opera. Eating and talking were also forbidden ("No, sorry sir, you cannot bring your take-away in with you!").
The tour guide told us some of curious stories in the Liceu's history. There is no royal box, for example. Seats were originally sold to private members, and as the Queen didn't show any interest in producing the cash, she didn't get one. The royals did get two second chances (considering the Liceu has burnt down twice), but presumably now have to log on like ordinary mortals if they want seats. The bust of Isabel II got dragged out of the Liceu foyer during the 1868 Revolution, hauled down the Ramblas and dumped into the harbour. There's no love lost between the Catalans and the Royals, as you can see!
Inside out: outside on the Ramblas, another world
Going on a guided tour (mornings only, from 10am, price €5) was a good way to practise our Spanish - next time we'll hand out a worksheet and get everyone to fill in all those facts and figures! The Liceu complex is now three times bigger, at around 35,000m2, than it was before the 1994 fire - with the auditorium now three times smaller than the rest of the building (previously it was the other way round, but the high-tech scenery changing apparatus is massive, enabling different operas to be put on in the same week). The whole is now protected by a 28 ton steel fire curtain.
The guided tour is about an hour (apparently there is also an "express visit" for coach parties), and if you want more there's a video, which shows you highlights of last season's operas and some of the high-tech installations that make the Liceu one of the world's most modern, as well as one of its largest opera houses, and also contains some fascinating images of how it was rebuilt.
What do you mean your Spanish isn't good enough to go on a guided tour and watch a video? Surely you opera-lovers sit through hours of stuff you don't understand...?
Tickets go on sale in July for the season that begins in September - and sell out, fast! Tickets can be obtained online from www.servicaixa.com and from the Liceu's own site.
To learn more about the Liceu (and to take a virtual tour), go the Liceu opera house site.
The other place music lovers should definitely visit in Barcelona is the Palau de la Musica.
• More from our Visit Barcelona program.